Can an Anchorage start-up lure renewable energy investors to rural Alaska?

Patrick Boonstra of Intelligent Energy Systems, and Kwigillingok wind tech Benny Daniel check a turbine after a blizzard the night before. (Photo by Rachel Waldholz/APRN)

Patrick Boonstra of Intelligent Energy Systems, and Kwigillingok wind tech Benny Daniel check a turbine after a blizzard the night before. (Photo by Rachel Waldholz/APRN)

In recent years, communities across rural Alaska have pushed to add renewable energy and reduce the use of expensive diesel to power their communities.

The majority of those projects have been funded with state and federal grants. But as the state budget has contracted, those grants have dried up.

Now, a start-up company in Anchorage wants to take a new approach: connecting private investors to the state’s remote villages.

Piper Foster Wilder moved to Alaska a couple years ago after working on renewable energy in the Lower 48. She saw a gap between the way renewables are viewed down south, and the way they’re viewed up here.

“There was nothing fringe-y, alternative or outside-of-the-mainstream about renewable energy,” in the Lower 48, Foster Wilder said. “This is the business of suit-and-tie wearing people, who are making a lot of money doing it.”

“That argument is still being made in Alaska,” she said.

Foster Wilder hopes to bring some of that suit-and-tie attitude to the state with her start-up, 60Hertz Microgrids. It’s one of four companies chosen this year by the Anchorage business incubator Launch Alaska, which offers seed money and coaching to local ventures.

In the past, Foster Wilder said, the state might have covered the cost of a wind turbine or solar array for a rural community, perhaps with a grant from the Renewable Energy Fund. With shrinking state budgets, that’s generally no longer an option. And it can be hard for communities to qualify for affordable loans for renewable projects.

So, Foster Wilder said, it’s time to try a different model.

She said Outside investors are looking for renewable energy projects to put money into, because of attractive tax incentives.

“This was the lightbulb that went off for me a year ago,” she said. “I was meeting with an investor, and he said, ‘Piper, I just want to bring $200 million of clean energy capital to Alaska. Can you help me do that?'”

The answer, at the time, was no. But Foster Wilder aims to change that, connecting money to rural villages.

60Hertz hopes to aggregate several community projects, creating a big enough pool that it’s attractive to investors willing to lend money at low interest rates – and so the projects themselves can benefit from economies of scale.

“Our goal is to simplify the process, to be a bridge between money and need,” Foster Wilder  said. “So, who are investors that want to take advantage of the incentives of investing in renewable energy? And who are the people that need that capital, so they can pay for this infrastructure in a fair way?”

Will it work? So far, it’s untested. 60Hertz is running a contest this fall, looking for communities to partner with. Foster Wilder hopes to give her concept a real-life road test in the coming year.

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